Beyond Bran

Fiber, that old health standby, is now available in novel forms.

By Lisa James

November 2007

Once upon a time, when you went to the health food store for fiber you generally had a choice of wheat bran, a good source of the insoluble fiber that helps your digestive system stay on track, or oat bran, which contains the soluble fiber that helps lower cholesterol. And back home you would go toting a bag or two of brown powder.

Both brans are still popular, with good reason—they remain excellent sources of the two basic types of dietary fiber. But today store shelves also sport an increasingly sophisticated array of fiber supplements, often in capsule form, many of which are tailored to deal with specific health concerns.

Better Digestion—And Much More

Insoluble fiber’s ability to draw water into the intestines, which helps prevent constipation and keep waste matter from languishing within the body, is valuable—and fairly straightforward. But it is the many types of soluble fiber that have caught the eye of science thanks to a continually growing list of health benefits.

Like that of its insoluble cousin, part of soluble fiber’s value is tied to mechanical action; it forms a thick, slow-moving gel within the digestive tract that stops sugar from entering the body too rapidly—which helps keep glucose (blood sugar) levels from spiking—while carrying some sugar and fat out of the body altogether. In addition this gel traps bile, a cholesterol-based digestive fluid created by the liver, and making more bile means taking additional cholesterol out of circulation...which helps hold down blood levels. Unlike the insoluble stuff, though, soluble fiber undergoes fermentation within the colon to produce short-chain fatty acids. These acids do a little of everything: Feed the probiotic bacteria that help the body digest food, protect against polyps, stimulate immunity, increase mineral absorption and help further keep both cholesterol and glucose levels in check.

Soluble fiber is getting rave research reviews. In one study, people who ate the least fiber were 63% more likely to have high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammation marker tied to cardiovascular risk; in another, flax seed was found to improve glucose control (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 4/06, Journal of Medicinal Foods Winter 05). And psyllium, another fiber source, has helped bring relief to people with an inflammatory intestinal disorder called Crohn’s disease.

Fiber and Friends

Flax seed and psyllium are two of the best-known types of soluble fiber available, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. Others include arabinogalactan (AG), which has shown a special affinity for immune-system components called natural killer cells; beta-glucans, another fiber that helps boost immunity; fenugreek, a spice rich in a heart-healthy fiber called galactomannan; lignan, the stuff in flax that has been associated with lower breast-cancer rates; and oligosaccharides, which probiotic bacteria really love to chow down on.

Some fiber formulations match different kinds of fiber with complementary herbs: Garcinia cambogia and Gymnema sylvestre for glucose control, for example, or astragalus, echinacea, olive leaf and shiitake for immune support. And some supplements even provide natural enzymes to help prevent bloating.

Of course it’s important to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. But thanks to precision-designed supplementation, it has never been easier to find the extra fiber your body needs—no matter what it needs.

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